A common thread connects U.S. military operations of the past 20 or more years: We’ve persistently tried to fight them on the cheap. In gauging the requirements of a prospective campaign, “What do we need to win?” has repeatedly taken a back seat to “What’s the minimum we can get by with?”
The ongoing air campaign against Islamic State illustrates the point. Having declared that this new threat must be destroyed, the Obama administration refuses to provide the forces needed to do just that. Hence, Washington’s unseemly scramble to recruit proxies willing and able to do what the United States won’t do: put “boots on the ground.” The Pentagon calls the result Operation Inherent Resolve. A more accurate name would be Operation Halfhearted Effort.
From 2002 to 2003, American generals thought invading Iraq would require half a million troops or so. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knew better – or claimed to – and allocated only 148,000. Sufficient to get to Baghdad, that number proved woefully inadequate to control the country. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to yield a quick, tidy win. Instead, the Iraq War became the second-longest and just about the most expensive in U.S. history.
The longest is the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, never adequately resourced by Bush or his successor. So 13 years after arriving in Afghanistan, U.S. troops are now withdrawing, not victoriously, but with fingers crossed that the place won’t fall apart. We’ve seen what a similar hope in Iraq produced.
These campaigns, and others, are part of a broader enterprise that from the outset suffered from this problem of under-resourcing. Over the course of several decades, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, bombed and raided places throughout the greater Middle East. We have killed considerable numbers of people. We have overthrown governments and installed others in their place. We have put the hurt on some very nasty militant groups (only to see others almost immediately appear).
What larger goal these actions are meant to achieve is not entirely clear. Proffered explanations have ranged from securing the world’s oil supply to eliminating terrorism to spreading the blessings of freedom and democracy.
Regardless of actual purpose, the overall undertaking qualifies as hugely ambitious. Through its military exertions in the Islamic world, the United States is clearly trying to achieve something very big.
Yet from the outset, Americans have refused to acknowledge what employing military means to do big things entails. On this point, the lessons of history are quite clear. Business as usual won’t do. Put simply, doing big things militarily necessitates reconfiguring national priorities.
The old-fashioned word for this is mobilization, which implies changing just about everything: tax rates, patterns of consumption, social relationships, educational priorities, the prerogatives exercised by the state and, of course, the size of the armed forces. In simplest terms, mobilization implies collective effort that involves collective sacrifice, without which wars fought to achieve big things are doomed to fail.
Is victory, however defined, worth a vastly greater expenditure of lives and treasure? If the answer is “yes,” then it’s time to let out the stops. If the answer is “no,” then continuing on our present course is foolish, immoral and constitutes a betrayal of those sent to fight a war that we have no hope of actually winning. If we’re not willing to go all-in, then we should go home.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a fellow at Columbia University.